John Taylor Gatto on Beating the System
by Scott London
John Taylor Gatto’s career as a school teacher began in 1965 when he borrowed his roommate’s teaching license and began working as a per diem substitute in New York City. He went on to become the city’s Teacher of the Year three years in a row and then New York State Teacher of the Year. But Gatto didn’t care for being in the public spotlight, and he ended his teaching career in 1991 with a now famous resignation letter published in the Wall Street Journal.
In the letter, he criticized the public school system for teaching what he called “a curriculum of confusion, class position, arbitrary justice, vulgarity, rudeness, disrespect for privacy, indifference to quality, and utter dependency.”
Since then, Gatto has traveled across the country talking about the need to overhaul America’s public education system. He’s also written numerous books, including Dumbing Us Down and Weapons of Mass Instruction.
He’s a strong advocate of homeschooling. His books left a profound impression on me and were a key influence in my decision to homeschool my own kids.
On one of his visits to California, I sat down with him to talk about the trouble with America’s schools. We spoke at length about his experiences as a school teacher. I was especially curious to know how his students managed to win New York State’s essay contest year after year. His answer surprised me but also revealed an essential truth about our public education system.
“A girl came to me early on in my teaching career,” Gatto said. “She wanted to enter a congressman’s essay contest. I don’t know if she wanted to win a trip to Washington or a gold star. ‘Why are you wasting your time chasing these prizes?’ I asked her. ‘There are so many worthwhile things to do.’ But she pressed the point. So I said I would help her. I couldn’t promise that she would win, but I could guarantee that she would be in the finals.”
“How could you guarantee that?” I asked. “After all, there were some fifty schools in the running for the prize.”
“Here’s what I told her,” he continued. “‘You have to follow my instructions to the letter, and it’s going to be a lot of work for you. I want you to take a week off from school. I’ll cover for you. I want you to research the congressman’s career from the beginning. I want to know what college he went to, his earliest public speeches, and what he is famous for. He’s going to give this award to somebody who agrees with him. And no one your age will be able to agree with him other than in some generic fashion. But you are going to agree with everything he said at the time when he was class president in 3rd grade. You’re going to research this man and find out what his hot-buttons are.’”
“Isn’t that a rather cynical way to go about it,” I protested.
“If that sounds cynical, Scott, let me tell you that’s as idealistic an enterprise as I can think of,” he shot back. “It’s showing people how to pull the screen back and see for themselves how the system really works.”
“Fair enough,” I said. “What happened?”
“Well, she did in fact win the trip to Washington (or whatever it was he was giving away). And a couple of her friends won second and third place. My students did this year after year. My kids were the valedictorians of the school. Our school gives the valedictorian prize not for the highest average but for the best speech.”
“What did you tell your kids about giving good speeches?” I asked.
“I said, first of all, that we would have to practice giving speeches in the auditorium, because they don’t want to pick someone for valedictorian who is going to embarrass them by freezing up on stage. So I got a key from the custodian — he was Irish, so it took three bottles of whiskey — and we made a master so that we could do all our practicing in the auditorium. Then I told them they had to know exactly what the committee believed. The committee was made up of a social studies teacher, a science teacher, and the principal. They had gone on record many times about who they were and what they believed. I said to the kids, “you’re going to say in your speech that who they are is the best of all, that’s how you’re going to be valedictorian.’”
Gatto registered the concerned look on my face. “Well,” he added, “you don’t actually believe that anyone in charge of giving a prize could give it to someone who contradicts their dearest, most cherished beliefs, do you? It would be madness.”
Well, I couldn’t disagree with him. And, in fact, what he said opened my eyes to an essential truth about awards and honors — that oftentimes they are given to those who express or exemplify what the award-givers themselves most fervently believe.
What Gatto was telling me — and who can deny the truth of it? — is that awards say more about the people who give honors than it does about those who receive them. This is a subject I want to come back to in future post.